Hays County District Attorney Civil Division Chief Mark Kennedy, left, and Braun and Associates attorney on behalf of the Dahlstrom family Cassie Gresham, right, at last week’s Hays County Commissioners Court meeting. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
Hays County is close to finalizing an agreement prohibiting development on 2,275 acres of aquifer recharge land on Dahlstrom Ranch property near Buda, though county residents won’t soon unwrap 350 acres of the land proposed for public access.
Hays County commissioners voted unanimously last week to authorize County Judge Liz Sumter (D-Wimberley) and District Attorney Civil Division Chief Mark Kennedy to execute – by Dec. 31 – closing documents for three conservation Dahlstrom Ranch conservation easements covering the 2,275 by Dec. 31.
A steering committee is formulating recommendations regarding the public access features planned for the ranch’s 350-acre Howe Pasture, which the Dahlstrom family has agreed to lease to the county. Hiking and picnicking will likely be among the activities allowed in the Howe Pasture.
Kennedy said the public access steering committee may have recommendations ready by February or March 2010. Kennedy said he will then negotiate with the law firm representing the Dahlstrom family, Braun and Associates, and perhaps execute a lease agreement by April.
“The conservation value (of the easement collection) is appraised at more than $22 million,” Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle) said. “And, yet, Hays County is getting it for $5 million – $4.9 million dollars. So we are reserving vast areas of land, critically important water quality features, and we’re doing that for really a fraction of the cost, because we have found regional partners who are stepping up to match our $5 million, and because the Dahlstroms themselves are willing to donate more than $12 million in value. And that is considering the value in terms of conservation easements already discounted. If you look at the value of this land on the open market for development purposes, it would be worth $40-50 million or more, and in that sense, Hays County is really paying pennies on the dollar because of the cooperation and partnership that we have struck. That’s a partnership that should pay dividends for years to come. And I think we’ve laid the foundations for other good works together with the family in the future.”
Commissioners have actually agreed to spend about $5.35 million in parks and open space bond funds on the Dahlstrom Ranch easements and related transactional costs. The county will share ownership of the easements with the City of Austin and the Hill County Conservancy (HCC).
Austin is contributing $1 million and HCC, by way of a grant from the National Resource Conservation Service, is contributing $4 million. Hays County commissioners agreed to contribute $4.9 million for the easements and about $350,000 in capital improvements for the Howe Pasture. More recently, commissioners agreed to pay $100,000 to help HCC with survey work and site cleanup, among other transactional costs. HCC will be the managing grantee for the easements.
“HCC has incurred a significant amount of attorneys fees because … their attorney has been doing the lion’s share of the drafting and document preparation, so we’ve offered to reimburse HCC for some of those costs,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy said the stakeholder committee is proposing that the county solicit donations from those wishing to access the Howe Pasture.
The locations of all the caves at Dahlstrom Ranch are not yet available to the public.
“We’ll put cave gates on the ones we consider to be readily accessible,” Kennedy said Tuesday.
Kennedy said there may be some “limited spelunking tours” on the property for safety reasons rather than to make a profit.
Tense moments preceded the court’s vote on the Dahlstrom Ranch issue last week, when two commissioners and Sumter expressed a desire to learn more about what had been negotiated regarding public access, and to get a guarantee that such access would be granted before authorizing execution of the lease agreements.
“I’m just really kind of interested in the details of the public access,” said Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-San Marcos).
Braun and Associates attorney Cassie Gresham asked in response that court members think of the Howe Pasture lease and the conservation easements as two separate issues.
“It’s hard because I think the public access is very important, and I think if we’re going to take action today, we’re paying this money up front without having those assurances,” said Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe (D-San Marcos)
Barton then suggested that the court move into executive session to discuss the issue, as the discussion involved sensitive ongoing negotiations with the Dahlstroms and the other parties.
“I’m happy to hear your concerns,” Gresham said. “I would really appreciate it if you guys would talk amongst yourselves about this, because I’m getting very nervous about the things that are being said out here.”
The court then went into executive session, and after 50 minutes, Sumter and the commissioners emerged from her office. Barton left the courtroom to conference with Gresham while the rest of the court moved on to other items.
After Barton and Gresham returned, the court voted to authorize execution of the easements and to amend the existing Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for lease of the Howe Pasture. The MOU originally stipulated that should the parties not come to some agreement regarding public access by January 2011, the MOU would expire.
“What we said today, what we changed, was that the MOU has a fuse on it for January 2011, but should we hit the end of that fuse, instead of expiring, the terms of that MOU will get rolled into a lease,” Kennedy said. “… We want the family bound to do a public access portion on this property, we want to have them obligated.”
After the court meeting, Conley said the Dahlstrom Ranch easements still would be worth what the county has agreed to pay, even if the public were not allowed to access the ranch.
“Like Jeff said, this is the largest contribution in Hays County’s history on anything, much less conservation,” Conley said. “…The public having access to a piece of this ranch gives them access to a piece of our heritage, a piece of our history, gives them an opportunity for environmental education and gives them some low-impact educational opportunities as well.”
Kennedy said even more of Dahlstrom Ranch may be accessible to the public in future years, depending on the family’s wishes. The MOU stipulates that the terms of the Howe Pasture lease can be renegotiated every year. Kennedy said it may be three to four years before the full 350 acres of Howe Pasture are open to the public.
“I don’t anticipate that we would expand to 350 in the first two to three years,” Kennedy said. “I think it would take us that long to see how things are going.”
Said Conley, “The Dahlstroms have been a wonderful partner and true to their word and I have no reason to not believe in their desire for public access.”Email | Print